Today, most air traffic controllers (ATCOs) manage geographically-defined airspace sectors – to qualify for service they undergo sector-specific training much like a pilot qualifies to fly a particular type of aircraft. In the future, though, we will need more flexibility to be able to respond to rapidly changing traffic patterns and short-term tactical issues such as increasingly unpredictable weather.

We believe the solution lies in how our controllers already manage aircraft over the ocean. For some time, oceanic airspace sectors have been operated not by geography but by type, which varies depending on the function each sector provides – a high-altitude long distance air route, for example, or a mid-altitude air corridor connecting different areas of controlled airspace. It’s this experience that we are using to help shape air traffic management of the future. While there are acute differences between our oceanic and domestic operations, there is a great deal we can learn from one to build on the other.

We recently completed proof-of-concept testing on our Increased Flexibility in ATCO Validations (IFAV) project, part of the SESAR 2020 research programme. In our IFAV concept, ATCOs of the future qualify for service by sector type, allowing them to operate in any airspace classified as a particular ‘type’, regardless of geographic location.

Instead of memorising in-depth information specific to a particular sector, controllers would have more tools to provide the information they need to manage their airspace type in any given geographical area. These new tools, in conjunction with standardised procedures and improved airspace design, would mean they could hold validations on more sectors than they can currently.

As part of the project, NATS controllers have been taking part in activities including ‘as-live’ air traffic control (ATC) exercises in our airspace simulator and a carefully controlled, limited, and fully assured live trial in our Swanwick ATC centre to explore what operational or technological changes may be required to help ATCOs adapt to working across airspace types rather than geographical airspace sectors. Now these validation exercises have been completed, we’re documenting the analysis that will feed into the next SESAR IFAV project.

As part of the proof-of-concept exercises, an IFAV ‘flexible’ controller is observed by a sector-valid ATCO in our airspace simulator.

Our work has already identified human, system, and procedural opportunities to enhance the way controllers could work in the future and allow greater operational flexibility. In particular, the exercises highlighted the importance of controllers having easy access to detailed information about the airspace immediately adjacent to their sector of operation, enabling them to build their understanding of each aircraft’s flight path before it arrives and after it leaves their control.

Initial feedback from controllers participating in the validation exercises was largely positive, although there is a recognition that more work will need to be done before IFAV can be introduced into live operations:

“I had plenty of time to make sure it was 100 per cent safe.”

 “Some sectors are more suited to IFAV than others.”

 “I think that the concept is really sound, and the idea that in the future you don’t need the intrinsic knowledge in your head but have a tool set to help you is definitely something that could happen.”

NATS is already working with industry partners on the next project, SESAR PJ.33 IFAV, using our previous experience to help develop and prototype new controller tools that could be integrated with our future ATC systems to realise a range of potential benefits including reduced controller workload, cost savings, and increased resilience across our ATC operations.

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